Living in the wide open southwest I’m used to lots of space. I drive on wide streets and live on a spacious patch of earth to grow flowers, vegetables, and trees. Traveling this summer in Mediterranean cities I found an entirely different spatial atmosphere. Many cities line narrow streets and walkways with Plane trees providing wonderful shade. Homes here are not individual structures surrounded by ground, but high-rise (6-12 stories) apartment buildings, with narrow walkways, and so much less space for garden green. Yet the gardeners show themselves, they leak out, around doorways, on balconies, and rooftops. This summer I was always looking for spots of green and I found them in Venice, Athens, and Barcelona. While my observations are not scientific after traveling this summer I’ve divided these metropolitan gardeners into three categories: the vegetable growers, the plant collectors, and the cocktail party gardens.
In wandering Venice, Italy, a city of waterway streets and a maze of narrow walking paths bordered by high terra cotta and ochre buildings, I found front door vegetable gardeners. The primary plants were tomato, basil, peppers and rosemary, thriving in pots and definitely handy for the cook who lived inside. The determination of growing a bit of your own vegetables was truly inspiring.
I found a floating vegetable market on one of the canals, a barge floats in for the day, complete with a large umbrella to provide shade, and enormous variety of courgettes, (squash) tomatoes, eggplant, and most delightfully a peach tree in a pot on its bow.
The colorful walls of the buildings are accessorized with window boxes of red geraniums, white and fuchsia mandevilla, petunias, and marigolds. The heat from the sun baking the walls would only allow for very sturdy plants and oleanders and olive trees both potted and in-ground are a frequent sight.
I was delighted to find parks in Venice. Walking to the east end of the island (or the bottom of the fish’s tail) we found Giardini’s Greenhouse built in 1894, the oldest permanent structure of the original system of the Biennale International Art exhibition. Built to house exotic plants, it was recently restored by the city of Venice. Today it houses a cafe, a nursery, and cultural exhibitions.
An allee of trees provided welcome shade and a place for locals to walk their dog or push the stroller.
Athens, Greece is a city with such history, a city that deserves such respect for its contribution to the world, yet today, it is a city without money for street sweeping or water for park trees. But the balconies of this busy place are loaded with life.
I rode the “hop on-hop off” bus and looked up at tiny balconies, (maybe 2’ x 6’) filled with plant collections. Banana trees, rubber trees, vine of trailing snail vines, elephant food, yucca, bougainvillea and more. Such precious space was filled with green.
Here I was struck by the amazing variety of plants on the balconies. Plant collectors enthusiastically filled the small space of the balcony life afforded them.
There is a National Botanical Garden in Athens. We were there on a Sunday and the locals wandered the paths in the shade of old trees. Flowers were limited, but sculptures included a frieze proclaiming Caesar, the use of Ionic capitals for seats, and a philosopher bust worthy of great reverence.
The old city of Barcelona, Spain is filled with flowers. Many are always in bloom, found in the architecture of the Modernisme style (similar to Art Nouveau) of the early 1900’s. There are roses, daisies, lavender, and orange trees carved in stone and detailed in mosaics and glass.
Architects Antonio Gaudi, Josep Pulgi Cadafalch,and Lluis Domenech i Montaner turned to nature for design, inspiration, and decoration, creating gardens of the night.
Here I found the balconies were a bit larger and the pots of plants were arranged more for accents around small seating areas. I found opportunities to be up among the roof tops looking onto roof top gardens with bistro tables, awnings and plantings designed to soften the view. This illustrated the idea of the cocktail party gardens, where creating a space to enjoy the evening, beginning around 9:00 pm, is a very significant part of Barcelona life.
Having a patio or roof top garden attached to your living space is a grand luxury. Life here was described this way by one local, “Barcelona is lived outside, walking the streets, sitting in a cafe, sharing a coffee or wine.” Cafes set up tables outside, covered with awnings, and after dark when the sun goes down, the people, locals and tourists alike come out. The night turns magical. Plants define the seating areas and help soften the conversations nearby.
These cities are busy with life, filled with history, paved with cobblestones and tiles with every inch squeezed into use. Especially in tourist areas the cafes and hotels accessorize their entrances with greenery, pots of sago palms and window boxes of colorful blooms. Yet, when you find your way to the side streets where local people live, the gardeners reveal the universal desire of we humans to surround ourselves with nature’s green. In these cities, individual gardeners make their presence known and make the world a better place with their plants.